July 28, 2014

Movie Mondays: 300: Rise of an Empire

That blue cape is gonna get really red

That blue cape is gonna get really red

Title: 300: Rise of an Empire
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad (Based on Xerxes (unpublished) by Frank Miller)
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham
Release Date: March 7, 2014

It’s time for another MOVIE MONDAYS, and this week we’ll be taking a look at 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel/prequel/side-quel to 2007’s 300. This time around Zack Snyder is no longer in the director’s chair, as he was neck-deep in the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, so directorial duties went to Noam Murro (Smart People). Considering how underwhelmed I was by 300, I was very worried that more of the same from an inexperienced director would be even worse. Did I assume correctly? Was I sorely mistaken? Did 300: Rise of an Empire defy my expectations the same way they defied the Persians? Let’s find out.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of everything, let’s get one very important thing out of the way. Taking into account that Leonidas, Themistocles, Darius, Xerxes, Artemisia, and the Persian Wars were real people and events, one might go into this film expecting some sort of semi-accurate historical action-adventure. It is not. Much like its predecessor, 300: Rise of an Empire is pure fantasy based extremely loosely on historical events that may or may not have transpired the way scribes originally recorded them. This film is pure “peplum” or “sword and sandal,” or to use a term coined by Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi, “Neo-Mythology.”

The Greeks were really fond of waxing it seems!

The Greeks were really fond of waxing it seems!

“Sword and sandal” movies were spectacle films full of scantily-clad muscle men performing feats of daring-do, all the while flexing their stuff in the sun. If you’ve ever seen the two Hercules movies starring Steve Reeves, then you know what I’m talking about. Hollywood had their own version of “sword and sandal” movies, which featured bigger budget productions and more conservative costumes on our actors (both male and female). Classics like Spartacus, Samson and Delilah, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans are all examples of these spectacle-filled big-screen adventures. Other entries include forays into sub-genres like “sword and sorcery” such as Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the years went on, the on-screen sex and violence was considerably increased.

Keeping this film in the proper genre mindset makes it much more enjoyable…unless of course you’re not one for copious amounts of blood and gore and extremely dark sexual content.

That's a lot of damn costume changes

That’s a lot of damn costume changes.

Sullivan Stapleton gets top-billing and happens to be the main character of this story, fulfilling essentially the same role as Gerard Butler’s Leonidas from the first film. And he gives an engaging and entertaining performance. However, the true star of this movie is Eva Green. Her insane, sexually and emotionally disturbed, violent, battle-craving portrayal of Artemisia absolutely steals the show. Clearly the creators of this film knew this was going to be the case, choosing to adorn their film’s secret star with a new costume in practically every other scene. The costuming for everyone else is what should be expected: leathers, cloaks, robes, and an ample amount of bare skin. Stapleton and Green give the best performances out of the bunch. Everyone else delivers their lines and portrays their roles with scene-chewing melodramatic theatricality.

An interesting note about this film is that the antagonist, Eva Green’s Artemisia, is given the most focus, the only real over-arching story. None of the other characters are given any real depth or motivation. Moreover, plenty of story is spent explaining why Artemisia is the battle-hungry, conflicted man-crazy man-hater that she is. Every good villain or villainess is the hero of their own story, and she certainly thinks so. Which leads to another point of praise: this film doesn’t really demonize or lionize any particular group. Sure, the Persians utilize slave labor and are trying to conquer the world, but the Greeks are shown as petty, squabbling, rapist bastards. It’s not a black and white portrayal of good and evil.

The refusal to help... the consequences... the revenge

The refusal to help…the consequences…the revenge.

The music for this film was provided by Tom Holkenborg, better known to most as the electronica and big beat performer Junkie XL, and is so remarkable that it prompted this reviewer to further research Holkenborg’s musical endeavors, only to realize that he has been working with Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions collaborating on films such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Dark Knight Rises, and Man of Steel. As much as I enjoyed the music, enough that I made a mental note in the theater to mention it, I honestly can’t remember any particular motif or melody or theme. I recall that it fit perfectly within the confines of the film, complimenting each moment, never distracting from the action or story, or overpowering any particular moment on the screen. So, while I clearly found it enjoyable, I didn’t find it memorable.

That man was full of marinara sauce!!!

That man was full of marinara sauce!!!

The blood and gore are outstandingly overblown, and whether you love it or hate it will undoubtedly dictate whether or not you enjoy the film. While it’s been nearly seven years since this reviewer has seen the first 300, it struck me that this film is considerably more bloody, while not necessarily more violent than its predecessor. Often times, excessive, gratuitous, bloody violence is a major point of contention for me, whether it’s handled realistically (Immortals) or not (Kill Bill). For some reason, however, the extravagant exaggerated use of blood in this movie doesn’t bother me at all. It’s as if the bloodshed and splatter has artistry to it that other films fail to capture.

The film also features its fair share of on-screen sexual activity, some gratuitous and some not. A flashback shows Artemisia witnessing the murder of her father and rape of her mother, and while the rape is depicted on screen it is presented in dark shadows, but it is made painfully obvious what is happening and the camera lingers on the action for just a bit too long. That uncomfortable feeling in my stomach was presumably exactly what the filmmakers were going for, so this is essentially a backhanded compliment, as they made the audience as distraught as the character we’re connecting with.

The other instance where gratuitous sexual activity comes into play is vastly different in terms of implementation and reaction. A scene where negotiations give way to sexual tensions that gives way to a sexual power struggle starts out clichéd, predictable, yet still enjoyable, goes on a little too long and becomes repetitive and uninteresting.

Boys forged into men through battle

Boys forged into men through battle.

The dialogue is hammy, in that fun melodramatic sort of way, and the narration is overwrought and self-important, in that overly theatrical sort of way that you either cringe at or can’t help but enjoy. That’s a great way to assess the movie in general. Not necessarily “so bad that it’s awesome,” but one of those middle-of-the-road sort of films where audiences either love it or leave it.

Countless Persian soldiers sit back to let our hero do his thing

Countless Persian soldiers sit back to let our hero do his thing.

300: Rise of an Empire is about as historically inaccurate as its predecessor. That’s okay because you’re not watching this movie to see an accurate retelling of history; you’re watching to enjoy a melodramatic, spectacle-filled fantasy inspired very loosely by history, where muscular men and beautiful women engage in action-packed, battle-filled adventure. If you’re watching for any other reason, chances are you’ll hate this film. Not great, but not bad, and certainly better than average, 300: Rise of an Empire scores a 6 out of 10.

Aaron Nicewonger



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